Balance, Career Advancement, Featured, Interviews

Failing Forward: What to do when your nonprofit doesn’t launch

So, you want to start a nonprofit or social enterprise? Doing so can be a bigger challenge than many of us think. To explore these challenges, we invited Anne Desrosiers, a social entrepreneur, to explain how she’s recovering and planning after her nonprofit didn’t launch. You can read about her journey each month in her column Failing Forward.

by Anne Desrosiers

There’s an old saying that goes: “People plan and God laughs.” At the end of last year, I’m pretty sure there was a riot happening in the heavens. For all the stories you hear about the successes of social entrepreneurs – you very rarely hear the tales of start-ups gone awry, those that have derailed, and those that never actually take off. So, here’s my story.

Photo credit: DanieLoop, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: DanieLoop, Creative Commons/Flickr

The story behind TWIYO

The inspiration for The World is Your Oyster (TWIYO)—the nonprofit I started—came from my experiences growing up in a low-income neighborhood.  Many of us lived in a mental jail cell where we either plotted our escape or came to accept our surroundings as the most we’d ever achieve.

However, I had the chance to study abroad in Australia in 2005 and while I was there I visited South Africa and Hong Kong. From then on it was official; I had been bitten by the travel bug. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, I spent two months living in Antwerp, Belgium, visiting Barcelona, Luxembourg, Paris and London. Traveling has made me realize that the world is such a beautiful place and that we can build community with people we initially think we have little in common with.

I wanted kids who shared my background to be exposed to these things; to the experiences that allowed me to be successful educationally, professionally, and personally. So with the youthful, spirited enthusiasm of most do-gooders I decided to make good on this plan and create a nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and transforming urban youth into leaders of tomorrow through distinct travel, cultural, and international experiences.

Dreaming too big

Unfortunately, I had no idea what a nonprofit was. So, in 2009 I decided to go to graduate school and learn the ropes while getting advice from some veterans. I began with some pretty grandiose ideas like a one million dollar budget for programs; a $90,000 salary for myself (of course it was that high, for my sheer social genius, work ethic, and drive); and a ton of students who would be eager and willing to travel the world, give back, and be a part of a great after-school program.

Fortunately, one of my professors and a former classmate helped me create a more realistic business and program plan. Feeling prepared, at the end of 2010 I moved to Dallas for a change of scenery sans snow, what I thought was a better financial climate, and to get some hands-on education experience.

After a year of learning, researching, and working—first at a school and then as an AmeriCorps VISTA—I felt that I had done enough and had enough time on my own without distractions to understand and act on my plan. It was time to start things for TWIYO and put all my research, business planning, and education to use. Prior to driving back to New York City, I formed TWIYO’s founding Board of Directors comprised of people who had the skills, experiences, and belief in me to get off the ground in the Fall of 2012 – one year and a few months later.

Going full steam

Once I arrived back in Brooklyn in July 2011, I was on a roll. I established partnerships, got free legal assistance, incorporated our organization, created our brand and worked towards the goal of launching TWIYO in the Fall 2012 as a new after-school program and youth-development nonprofit. I also planned a few successful fundraisers, got three schools on board to work with us, and began talking with students about getting involved in the program. I was flying high!

So you can imagine my surprise on launch day, when I had no students or volunteers show up.

Photo credit: kewl, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: kewl, Creative Commons/Flickr

Failing fast

I extended the deadline, reached out to my school contacts, and called parents who sounded ecstatic but never submitted any of the information I needed. I visited a school in Manhattan to try and recruit students who had expressed interest. Still: no applications, no feedback, and no program.  After planning and working on this for two years and counting, not having the essential piece of TWIYO’s puzzle left me feeling deflated, unmotivated, and sad.

Reflecting…and crying

It was crucial for me to nurse my wounds, vent, and get back in a good mental place before the year was over. During this time, I let all the emotions that I felt run their course. First came the self-pity and loathing at having failed; then came the confusion of how this could have happened given all the time I put in; and then came my resurgence from that dark shroud I had wallowed in.

I had to schedule a board meeting to give everyone an update and apologize for my silence. Yet rather than leaving the meeting feeling beat down, I realized that I was not alone in my vision of TWIYO and I felt re-energized me to make things happen. In my temporary defeat I had forgotten that when I formed the Board in 2011, TWIYO went from being MY baby to OUR baby and I always had believers who placed their faith in me.

Next steps for TWIYO

Realizing that I wasn’t alone also taught me an important lesson: while the entrepreneurial path is one that usually starts as a lonely journey, at some point, people join you and give you gas for your journey in terms of their ears, minds, expertise, and time. Quitting is like turning off the car that is your passion and abandoning it on the side of the road.

Of course, you plan, and account for things, and try to do your best but the unexpected knocks the wind out of you. Now that we’re in 2013, I think that TWIYO is more than prepared to meet its opportunity…but I still have more reflecting and planning to do.

In addition to founding and running The World is Your Oyster, Anne is a Nonprofit & Career Management Consultant, professional writer/blogger, and travel agent. On a personal mission to help others do good, live their passion and see the world, Anne is committed to making a difference while sharing her experiences in the process

About Anne Desrosiers

In addition to founding and running The World is Your Oyster, Anne is a Nonprofit & Career Management Consultant, professional writer/blogger, and travel agent. On a personal mission to help others do good, live their passion and see the world, Anne is committed to making a difference while sharing her experiences in the process.

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